A Too-Blunt Instrument For Fighting D.C. Crime

Sunday, June 14, 2009

When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council member Jack Evans look across the D.C. neighborhoods where thousands of young residents are struggling to find jobs, get good educations and grow safely into productive adulthood, you have to wonder exactly what they see.

Is it a bleak, unforgiving landscape ruled by gangs of soulless youths who deserve to be locked up forever? Or do they see a landscape where residents' truest common link is their shared desire to improve their lives and those of their family members?

We certainly hope that our elected officials see the diamonds in even the roughest of neighborhoods -- and recognize the crucial need to account for the many nuances of behavior, circumstantial quirks and sheer dumb luck that are part of most young people's experiences.

The emergency crime bill that is scheduled for a D.C. Council vote on Tuesday is unaccountably tone-deaf to the complex realities of young people's experiences in these times. The measures have the potential to unfairly tar a wide swath of the District's youth with guilt-by-association brushes that would hinder their ability to recover from episodes in which poor judgment in the moment -- not murderous intent or hard-core drug dealing -- may have led them to criminal activity.

The bill's most notable features include a "gang injunction" that carries an overly broad definition of what constitutes a gang affiliation; a "gun offender registry" that has the potential to unfairly limit offenders' prospects for turning their lives around; and the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences that shift the sentencing authority from judges to adversarial prosecutors. The gang injunction finding can remain in the defendant's permanent record; this shortsighted provision virtually ensures that people will continue to be subjected to its negative taint.

Worse yet, because these are civil injunctions, young people are robbed of their right to be provided with legal representation. The mayor's stated rationale for the urgency is simply the impending arrival of summer, when young people are out of school. Jobs would be a better solution.

In fact, gun crimes in the District declined last year, with a 12 percent reduction in gun-related robberies and a 14 percent decrease in gun-related assaults. The bill is likely to strengthen actual gangs. After being slapped with the label by this proposed injunction and told that it will stick indefinitely, young people who had previously only flirted with gang involvement may give up on finding the will to avoid the lure of gangs.

For a youngster desperately trying to maintain the courage to buck negative peer pressure, this legislation does not give them a lifeline, it gives them a prison cell where faint candles of inner strength have no oxygen.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and chief executive of the NAACP, and Lorraine C. Miller is the president of the D.C. branch of the NAACP. Both are residents of the District.

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